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Detroit outlines key recommendations for updating city’s zoning ordinance

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“Zoning Analytic” is the first major document released by the Planning Commission as part of the city’s rezoning process

Several brick buildings side-by-side at the corner of an intersection. There’s a colorful flower mural on the side of one, as well asseveral e-scooters and planters nearby.
Mixed-use buildings in Corktown.
Photo by Michelle Gerard

Detroit is building more than it has in quite some time. That’s why revising the city’s outdated zoning ordinance, to make sure those buildings truly suit the city, is more important than ever.

Last year, the city’s Planning Commission, with support from the Legislative Policy Division (LPD), officially embarking on that major update. The nearly 900 page document is outdated in numerous ways and unwieldy for most people, even city officials.

The team, along with consultants Code Studio based out of Austin, have been meeting with stakeholders and getting resident feedback since August 2018. Earlier this week, the LPD released the first significant report of the work to date, Zone Analytic, which provides an overview of the process and outlines key recommendations. The document makes sure to note that it’s a “starting point for discussion” prior to drafting the new ordinance.

We wrote about the process the LPD is taking to receive feedback in a previous article, so we’ll just cover the recommendations in this document, which are divided into four major buckets:

  • Making zoning simpler for everyone
  • Neighborhood revival
  • Corridor growth
  • Job creation

Let’s expand a little bit on each. You can also read the full document for yourself here.

Making zoning simpler

To state it plainly, the new code will look better, be shorter, and ultimately be more user friendly. Dry charts with codes and terms will be replaced with colored images of building and street types so that non-development professionals should be able to understand it.

Via Zoning Analytic

Beyond appearance, the ordinance will become more form- and less use-based, meaning multiple kinds of uses could take place under a standard building. Underused, obsolete, and unnecessary overlay codes will be removed or reviewed.

This simplification will not only be easier on users, but the city as well, as it won’t need to painstakingly review every requested variance on a case-by-case basis. The LPD also says it wants to make the process of going through the Board of Zoning Appeals more transparent, and the easiest way to do that is with clear guidelines.

For the neighborhoods

Detroit is overwhelmingly a city of single-family homes—40 percent of all the land in the city is zoned R1. The LPD wants to give people more flexibility to maximize efficient use of land by allowing for bigger projects (multi-family homes) or smaller projects (tiny homes), which require different lot sizes.

Via Zoning Analytic

This will hopefully spur creation of more “missing middle” homes—duplexes and fourplexes, for example—which “address the mismatch between the available housing stock and shifting demographics combined with the growing demand for walkability,” the document reads. It’s recommending a number of tweaks to the ordinance—such as allowing the creation of lots that are less than 5,000 feet or accessory dwelling units like carriage houses—to accommodate these various housing types.

The new ordinance will also incentivize affordable housing and reduce the number of auto-related uses, like tire shops and used car lots, which was a major piece of feedback from residents.

Growth and commercial areas

One of the most popular form of building types at the moment is “mixed-use”—buildings that have some blend of residential and/or office, typically with ground-floor retail. The current zoning ordinance doesn’t even allow for this kind of development in most parts of the city, instead requiring the creation of a Special Development or Traditional Main Street Overlay district.

These special uses account for just 11 percent of all land in the city, 14 percent of which are vacant. The LPD wants to increase that number by adding residential uses to all generic business districts.

Another important change could be “rightsizing” parking, or reducing the number of required parking spots per development, which is a burden to developers and pedestrians alike.

While these may be the two biggest takeaways, there’s many others involving restoring alleys, expanding green space, and improving standards at development sites.

Jobs

How can zoning translate to job creation? Well, 40 percent of Detroit’s land is vacant—i.e. unproductive. If vacant parcels could be rezoned correctly, potential job opportunities await in green uses like urban farming, stormwater management, non-motorized trails, and solar farms.

Via Zoning Analytic

The document also recommends making it easier for people in disinvested areas to start businesses or nonprofits out of homes or through adaptive reuse of buildings like schools.

What’s next?

Now that the first set of recommendations has been released, the Planning Commission will continue to take feedback from residents and stakeholders, who can do so through Zone Detroit’s website or at public meetings held before public comments close on November 1.

LPD is hoping to submit a formal draft of the ordinance and get it passed by City Council by the end of 2020.